Saturday 15th January 2022 13th Sh’vat 5782
Exodus 13:17 - 17:16; Judges 4:4 - 5:31; Matthew 14:22-33
A few weeks ago, a good friend relayed the following story to me: His son was playing basketball in their driveway with a couple of friends. At one point, his son took an inadvertent blow to his mouth and a tooth crown popped out. After a fruitless search, he went inside and told his mother.
My friend's wife went outside, took up the cause, and found the crown in no time. Their son said in astonishment, “Mom, I looked for 15 minutes but couldn’t find it - how did you find it so quickly?” She explained, “You were looking for a small piece of enamel, I was looking for $1,300 dollars!”
Understanding the true value of things and appreciating what you have is one of the keys to lifelong happiness. Unfortunately, the human condition makes this difficult to achieve. Our sages teach, “A person who has one hundred wants two hundred and person with two hundred wants four hundred” (Koheles Rabbah 1:13).
Empirically, it would seem that it doesn’t make a difference what sums we are discussing. Meaning, even if a person has one hundred million dollars he wants two hundred million; if he has two hundred million he wants four hundred million.
Honestly, is there a significant difference in one’s quality of life between having one hundred million dollars and having two hundred million?
Yet there is clearly an insatiable desire to accumulate ever more and more. This would probably explain why the world has about 2,500 billionaires (not surprisingly, New York City has the most billionaires of any city in the world with over a hundred). Unless one has acquired wealth the old-fashioned way – by inheriting it – there seems to be a powerful force driving one to continue spending energy, effort, and time working to gain more.
This week’s Torah reading teaches us a powerful lesson regarding wealth and also instructs us on how a person can know when they are satisfied with what they have. Seemingly, the goal is to know when you have enough, but this is obviously quite difficult to achieve. (Similarly, many people have the same issue when it comes to eating, how does one incorporate a habit that will enable them not to overeat?)
God decreed that Abraham’s descendants were to go to a land that was not their own and become slaves for four hundred years (Genesis 15:13). In the next verse, God promises Abraham that when his descendants leave the land of their bondage, they will do so bearing great wealth. How did God fulfill this promise?
God pleaded with Moses that the Jewish people should ask their Egyptian neighbors for fine jewelry and clothes so that when they left Egypt they would have wealth (see Exodus 11:2). They did so and managed to accumulate significant going away presents (ibid 12:35-36). Yet according to our sages, all that they managed to get from the Egyptians as they were leaving paled in comparison to the booty they seized from the Egyptian soldiers who came to slaughter them but instead were drowned by God in the Red Sea (I could not find a reference to this is the Talmud. All we are told is the bodies of the Egyptian army lay scattered on the shore).
Before we go on, I want to digress for a moment. In reading the above two paragraphs (or the original story in the Torah for that matter), one might walk away with the feeling that the Jewish people wrongly plundered the Egyptian populace. In fact, according to the Talmud (Sanhedrin 91a), this very accusation was raised before the court of Alexander the Great once he had conquered all of Eurasia.
The Jewish people were subpoenaed to answer the claim of the Egyptians that they stole their gold and silver upon leaving Egypt and never returned it. After all, the Egyptians had proof; the Jewish nation’s own bible corroborated their accusation!
Gaviah Ben Pesisiah, a sage who appears just this one time in the entire Talmud, gave the following answer: “You have a legitimate claim, for the Torah records that we left Egypt with much of your gold and silver.”
“But the very same Torah says that we were slaves for four hundred and thirty years (Exodus 12:40) – so in fact, we have a counterclaim! Pay us the wages for 600,000 slaves who labored day and night for four hundred and thirty years; for those wages surely exceed anything we might have taken when we left Egypt!” Alexander the Great turned to the Egyptian plaintiffs and demanded that they answer the counterclaim. “Give us three days to answer” the Egyptians pleaded. He granted them the time and they promptly disappeared and never returned.
Returning to our discussion, the Torah records in this week’s parsha that there was so much wealth on the banks of the Red Sea that Moses literally had to pull them away from the seashore. This was because all the precious gold, silver, and fine jewelry that the Egyptian soldiers had worn (they even adorned their horses with jewels!) had sunk to the bottom of the Red Sea when they and their horses drowned. However, God delivered a miracle and all the gold, silver, and jewels were brought up by the sea and deposited onto the shore from which the Jewish people were able to collect them.
Moses wanted the Jewish people to leave the seashore but struggled to get to them to comply because of all the wealth that was still lying on the sand in front of them. Even after they had collected a large amount, there was still more to be had and they didn’t want to leave.
But this story begs the following question: Since the entire episode was a miracle, why didn’t God just bring forth the exact amount that He wanted the Jewish people to take? Once they had collected everything, they would have surely left on their own without Moses having to admonish them to leave. Why should the sea deposit onto the banks more than they should take? Moreover, why would Moses even care if they stayed and collected more?
There is a very deep message here. God promised our forefather Abraham that the Jewish people would leave Egypt wealthy. But at what point can you consider yourself wealthy? At what point are you satisfied with what you have?
The answer is when you leave gold, silver, and precious jewels laying on the ground in front of you and you just walk away. That is what Moses was trying to teach them: You are wealthy now and you do not need any more. When they realized that they had so much that they could simply walk away from more they finally understood that they were in fact wealthy and left the seashore. Thus, God fulfilled his promise to Abraham.
In a similar (but much more mundane) vein, I recall hearing many years ago that Weight Watchers recommended, as a lifestyle change, a habit of leaving food on your plate during meals. In other words, instead of blindly consuming everything on your plate, consider how you feel, and when you feel satisfied stop eating and leave what is left on your plate. (I’ll bet you didn’t think you were going to get dieting tips from me today!)
When a person can honestly look at everything he has and say, “I have enough,” then he can finally walk away from the pressures, the time, and the mind space required to stay in the “rat race.”
More importantly, he can begin to focus on other life enriching endeavors (serving and worshiping God, family, acquiring knowledge, etc.) and can truly begin to enjoy all the blessings that he has been given.
Phil 4:12 - 13
… I know how to live humbly, and I know how to abound. I am accustomed to any and every situation—to being filled and being hungry, to having plenty and having need. I can do all things through Messiah Yeshua who gives me strength..."